Survivors of the Eritrean Gulag

Last Updated on Wednesday, 29 February 2012 16:10 Written by By Valerie de Graffenried Tuesday, 28 February 2012 22:15

(From the Swiss French daily_Le Temps_ of 28 February, 2012)

They fled a despotic regime, and spend quiet life in Switzerland but continued to be hounded by fear. Since 2007, Eritrean refugees occupy the top list of asylum seekers in Switzerland. In 2011 alone, 3,356 Eritreans arrived in Switzerland seeking asylum. Behind their quiet life in peaceful Switzerland lies a harsh reality: even in Switzerland, they are under pressure, blackmail and other forms of racketeering carried out by fans of the regime in Asmara. They are particularly threatened by a "revolutionary tax" of 2% that affects their income.

"I'm not afraid for myself but for my family in Eritrea," said Amanuel *,  25. He knows he is being monitored [by agents of the Eritrean regime]. Not long ago, he participated with friends in a Swiss city at meetings of an organization fighting for the establishment of peace and democracy in Eritrea. Nowadays, the meetings had to be organized underground. "My family back home had problems because I was identified as regime opponent. Because of that, I preferred to keep low profile. "

In Eritrea, Amanuel was taken to prison when he expressed his astonishment on the disappearance of fellow protesters. He modestly spoke of the maltreatment he was subjected to and the cries of women behind prison walls. While being transferred from one prison to another, he managed to flee and narrowly escaped the firing of guards. He had no better choice to leaving the country. Like other Eritrean army deserters, he preferred to speak in anonymity and insisted that certain details that would identify him should not be published.

The Eritrean diaspora communities, which are believed to be infested with "spies" in the pay of Asmara, are facing a 2% tax on income imposed by their embassies. The money is officially for use by the Eritrean consulate in Switzerland for services rendered for renewal of documents or for entitlement for inheritance. But the UN has the fear that this tax could be used to finance the Islamic militia of Al-Shabab in  Somalia.

"The tax is used primarily to sustain the regime, which works almost without external debts," says anthropologist David Bozzini. "In Eritrea, between 300,000 and 400,000 men and women aged 18 to 50 years are forced to indefinite civil and military services after a one year training at a military camp. Maintaining such an army and the absence of any demobilization inevitably entails costs ... “says David Bozzini, who lived two years in Eritrea researching for his post doctoral degree on the excessive hand of the State of Eritrea on monitoring and organizing the exiled Eritreans in Switzerland and the Netherlands.

The revolutionary tax is collected in an arbitrary manner and not systematically. It is  collected not only by going to the embassy but also by private collectors who knock on doors of private homes. This has been going on since Eritrea officially attained indepdence in 1993 or since  Isaias Afewerki, who is often portrayed as paranoid and alcoholic,  took the reins of power in the country. Europeans have been late in taking note of this reality. So far, the United Kingdom and Sweden have spoken out and are pushing for its abolition. This is not the case in Switzerland where only the Swiss Federal Police promised over the local TV 10- for-10 that it would investigate the matter as it had done in the past concerning [fund collections] of Tamil Tigers.

Tesfalidet *, whom I met in Bern, speaks with anger. He said: "In Eritrea, people are arrested without a charge, tortured for insignificant acts, imprisoned in appalling conditions and subjected to forced labor. The Swiss government must react! By accepting that we be subjected to this tax, for example, Switzerland indirectly supports the regime! "

Tesfalidet arrived in 2008. Like most Eritreans in exile, he is an army deserter. The fact that so many took refuge in Switzerland is not a sheer coincidence. The Swiss  Appeals Board on Asylum in December 2005 recognized army desertion by  Eritreans as legitimate ground for granting almost automatically entitlement to refugee status. As such, the decision  boosted the rate of arrival of Eritrean refugees from 6.1% of total applicants in 2005 to 82.6% in 2006. Thus, in 2006 1,201 Eritrean asylum seekers arrived in 2006 against  only 159 in 2005, representing an increase of 655%.

Aged 40, Tesfalidet joined the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) at the age of 14 and took part in the war of independence that liberated Eritrea fro Ethiopian rule in 1993. Again he again fought in the 1998-2000 war against Ethiopia. His problems began in 2000 while leading a unit of 99 persons as an army  lieutenant. "I've always been straightforward. I criticized the torture of minors for trifle mistakes.” Making a gesture by his arm, he continued: "I always insisted for leaving sufficient space between ropes in tying prisoners [to minimize torture].” He was referring to the torture technique called "helicopter" which suspends a prisoner from a ceiliing and subjects him/her to beating by the prison guards until the victim makes “confessions”.

During a meeting with President Isaias Afewerki, Tesfalidet asked why the president did not accept the mediation of the United States and Rwanda to end the war against Ethiopia. That was a costly "impertinence". Shortly after midnight of that day, he was called to see his superiors who asked him to surrender his military uniform.  He was beaten up - "I still have scars," he said, holding a medical certificate. He was thrown into a truck and was kept in a secret underground prison at  Wia, east of the country. "It was stifling. Nobody saw, nobody knew where we were. They wanted us to confess that we had links with  G-15 although our case had nothing to do with that”.  "The" G-15 "refers to politicians, including ministers, imprisoned in September 2001 for daring to co-sign an open letter to President Afeworki, in which they suggested for democratic reform. The majority of them are still held incommunicado. Or dead.
Tesfalidet finally managed to escape with friends in August 2003. He went to Sudan, leaving his wife and two children behind him. He rebuilt a new life,  went to live "five horrible years" in Libya and then boarded one day with 35 Eritreans in a boat towards Italy. He then took the road to Switzerland. "I am here. But I must say what happens at home, even by taking risks. "

Asmerom* agreed that there still exists [among Eritreans] the wish of exposing the regime on one hand and on the other the fear from harm to the family members and keeping quiet.  "I volunteered for the army, I served my country and the system has turned against me. It's hard to understand." He said he was imprisoned twice. The first, for having gone to his brother's wedding despite the ban of his superiors on his leave when he was already deprived of one over a year. And second, because, when assigned to a demining unit, he dared to ask his chief for a better equipment if he was to work. "They wanted to force me to sign a paper saying I was a traitor. I refused. I already had to do it once, after months of imprisonment and torture. "

He continues: "Signing this paper would mean signing my death warrant, and refused doing it ’’. Escape was very risky because they would kill me if caught. But one had to at least try. That's what he did. He managed to escape towards Sudan, passed through Libya - and suffered imprisonment for illegal migration to Benghazi – and finally reached Europe. Asmerom, with dark eyes and speaking in Tigrigna, he needed a friend to translate for him. Like other Eritreans I met, he tells his story in great detail. He talks for hours, drawing with his finger shapes of the underground prisons. "People were often sick. Some lost their heads due to long stay in dark and unhealthy prisons."

French journalist Vincent Leonard has just published a book under the title The Eritreans (Ed. Zone Books, 2012, 256 p.) based on testimonies received from the diaspora - almost one in five Eritreans has fled the country. He did not visit Eritrea but closely worked with Eritreans helping fugitives and meeting with paid smugglers. His conclusions are dependable. He speaks of this country as an "open air prison, a huge labor camp serving a paranoid leadership." He also describes Eritrea as  a "country that tortures itself, with a national Saturn devouring his children by terrorizing its surroundings."

Risks that a deserter can face if returned? "Either he is returned to his unit after a period of disciplinary camp, or it is thrown for an indefinite period in a detention center.  In both cases, what awaits is the confinement, sexual abuse and forced labor for weeks, months or years and, if released, a life under surveillance and cruel punishment for any small mistake", says Leonard Vincent.

He recalls that forced recruitment into the army is the fate of the young in the country and that demobilization is rare. Those released from military service may also at any time be recalled to military service without any specific reason. "That's why all those fleeing Eritrea today can be considered deserters."

* First name fictitious.